Bots in BPOs: How do we adapt? | Inquirer Opinion

Bots in BPOs: How do we adapt?

05:03 AM November 21, 2018

Automation and artificial intelligence (AI) have disrupted many industries, enabling Amazon to upend big retailers and Uber to transform transportation.

The same force for change has arrived in the Philippine business process outsourcing (BPO) industry. Since it employs more than a million people, there is cause for concern, but not the hysterical reactions predicting that all jobs will be lost. Instead, we should understand how these technologies are changing business processes, so we can adapt to the disruption and take the lead in the cognitive BPO revolution.

What exactly is robotic process automation (RPA)? Will C-3PO replace an agent and start typing away at the computer? No, these are software robots. They are similar to macros but are not dependent on humans: They can be programmed to operate given certain conditions. If a task is transactional and high-volume, has clear steps and does not require much judgment, it will be susceptible to automation. These include data entry work such as employee changes in human resources, invoice processing in finance, and all other tasks of the copy-and-paste variety, like my previous job as a learning administrator, which entailed encoding thousands of class data to a learning system.


AI or cognitive — a system that interacts in natural language, and understands, reasons and learns — has many applications, but a common BPO example would be virtual agents or chat bots. They understand actual human questions and not just key words, provide personalized responses, and, if the issue is complex, escalate to a live agent. This creates a better experience, as the customer receives more relevant answers faster.


It was much more difficult when I was a contact center agent: The knowledge base was not searchable, and I had to practically memorize its contents to find information to satisfy my customer while meeting my handling time target — not longer than seven minutes!

So, are we doomed to lose our leadership in the BPO industry as robots take over back-office work, and as chat bots replace contact center agents?

In the case of RPA, we can expect robots to take over routine and repetitive work. They are faster, hardly make mistakes, and never take a sick leave. But that is not all the work we do. Someone still has to talk to the client to understand his or her needs. Someone has to assess which processes are ripe for automation. Even mature processes will have exceptions. In these cases, we still need a human who can exercise judgment, use creative problem-solving and collaborate with people.

In the case of AI, someone has to train the system, and who else but an agent who has had thousands of customer interactions? While chat bots can answer simple queries, complex cases still need to be handled by a human who can step in, pacify a customer, and ultimately resolve the issue. This is where our much-vaunted empathy or “malasakit” as a cultural trait remains a competitive advantage.

We will see employees focusing on higher value, more interesting work and less on the robotic drudgery that most entry-level employees are engaged in. This is a welcome change, because most are college graduates with critical thinking skills. The cognitive BPO revolution is not a case of man against machine. AI is about augmenting the intelligence of our talent rather than replacing them. It is about restoring the human in the practitioner, as we require less robotic work of them. We, therefore, need to focus more on the skills that make us human—empathy, creativity, communication and collaboration. In a world where everyone has a robot and chat bot, those who can make machines work with humans — and provide an exceptional customer experience — will take the lead.

Beyond our famous empathy, resilience and creativity, Filipinos must now draw upon our history of ingenuity, which built the rice terraces and the Pacific galleons, to create a new world where robots and chat bots work with our customer-focused talent. If we do so, there is no reason why we cannot win the cognitive BPO revolution.


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Mark Lim, an executive at the world’s leading technology services firm, has 13 years’ experience with the BPO industry. It is his team’s mission to apply technology to transform business processes for the cognitive era.

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TAGS: AI, artificial intelligence, automation, BPO, Inquirer Commentary

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